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DA’s Federal Litigation Unit Secures Exoneration of Former Death Row Prisoner Daniel Gwynn

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PHILADELPHIA (February 28, 2024) – After nearly 30 years of imprisonment for a conviction and sentence secured by police and prosecutors who suppressed information to which he was legally entitled, the District Attorney’s Office on Wednesday dropped all charges against Daniel Gwynn for the 1994 arson murder of a woman in West Philadelphia.

Following a hearing, the 54-year-old Gwynn was ordered released from SCI Phoenix by the Hon. Barbara McDermott of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. As of Wednesday, the administration of District Attorney Larry Krasner has supported 42 exonerations of 41 wrongfully convicted people.

“I am proud of the justice-seeking work done by our Law Division Federal Litigation Unit, led by ADA Katherine Ernst and ADA David Napiorski. The exoneration of Daniel Gwynn today frees a man who is likely innocent. Sadly, it also exemplifies an era of inexact and, at times corrupt, policing and prosecution that has broken trust with our communities to this day,” DA Krasner said. “The public expects the right consequences for those who commit violent crimes, and wants the innocent to be free. When law enforcement wrongly arrests, prosecutes, and imprisons the innocent, the guilty go free and are emboldened to do more harm.” DA  Krasner added, “I will continue to encourage our justice partners, including the Philadelphia Police Department, until we have the forensics we need to solve crimes the right way – with accuracy and integrity.”

“The wrongful conviction of Daniel Gwynn, and his unjust imprisonment for nearly three decades, is a cautionary tale of tunnel vision in policing and prosecution,” said ADA Napiorski, who led the investigation of Gwynn’s federal habeas relief claims. “The oath sworn by prosecutors to seek justice compels us to follow the facts, even when they contradict assumptions and biases. Not only were Mr. Gwynn’s rights violated at trial, but his conviction and sentence to death row likely allowed the person actually responsible to escape accountability. We also apologize to the survivors of Marsha Smith for the retraumatization they have likely experienced. They were deprived of justice in 1994 and are deserving of justice now.”

On November 20, 1994, an unhoused woman named Marsha Smith was killed in an arson fire on the 4500 block of Chestnut Street in West Philadelphia. After a jury trial in which the Commonwealth relied on testimony from two witnesses and Gwynn’s confession to police – which he has recanted and the Commonwealth now finds unreliable – Gwynn was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death.

An alternate suspect in the 1994 murder had been identified by witnesses to police, but information about that suspect was never turned over to Gwynn, in violation of his constitutional rights. With no eyewitnesses, the police relied on information from two people who like Smith were squatting in that residence, and who police said identified Gwynn as “Rick” from photo arrays used in a separate murder investigation. Those photo arrays were never turned over to Gwynn’s defense counsel.

For decades, the DA’s Office maintained that the other murder was unrelated to Smith’s murder, and that the photo arrays did not exist.

But during recent federal habeas proceedings, the DA’s Office under the Krasner administration disclosed the full case file to Gwynn – which included black and white photo arrays and other previously suppressed information pointing to a plausible alternative suspect for Smith’s murder.

The photo arrays in the police files did not include Gwynn’s photo. Additionally, the other murder was committed in the same building, and the same witnesses cooperated with police. Those witnesses had testified against the defendant in the other homicide – the alternative suspect whom they identified was known as “Rick” in the neighborhood – three days before the arson that killed Smith. This information was never disclosed to the defense during Gwynn’s prosecution. Critically, the defendant in the other murder had threatened to have his associates kill the witnesses if they cooperated against him in the other trial.

The defendant in the other case was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison, which he is serving to this day.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1998 affirmed Gwynn’s conviction and death sentence, over the dissent of two justices who wrote that the trial court had erred in failing to suppress Gwynn’s confession due to issues with his initial arrest. In December 2020, the DA’s Office agreed that Gwynn should be resentenced to life without parole, which was accepted by the Court of Common Pleas. The Federal Litigation Unit and Gwynn’s counsel engaged in voluntary discovery, during which Gwynn was finally provided all of the exculpatory information to which he’d always been entitled, leading him to raise new claims for habeas relief.

In February 2023, the DA’s Office filed a response with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania conceding the Commonwealth had violated his federal constitutional rights under Brady v. Maryland, that his confession to police was not reliable, and that his conviction should be vacated. In June 2023, the federal court granted Gwynn habeas relief and ordered the Commonwealth to inform the state court of its intent to retry or nolle pros charges against Gwynn.

The DA’s response to Gwynn’s habeas relief claims can be found on Information on exonerations – which occur when a court both vacates a conviction and grants a motion to nolle pros the charges – secured by the DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) and Law Division can be found on the DA’s DATA Dashboard.

CONTACT:Jane Roh, 215-686-8711, [email protected]


The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office is the largest prosecutor’s office in Pennsylvania, and one of the largest in the nation. It serves the more than 1.5 million residents of the City and County of Philadelphia, employing 600 lawyers, detectives, and support staff. The District Attorney’s Office is responsible for the prosecution of approximately 40,000 criminal cases annually. Learn more about the DAO by visiting

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